The Time Traveler from The Other World

by Donald Webb

A note about the title: the novel has been historically referred to as Voyage dans la lune, ‘A Trip to the Moon’. Cyrano insisted on L’Autre Monde ou les états et empires de la lune. The distinction is crucial and is made repeatedly thoughout the novel: Cyrano takes an imaginary voyage to Earth’s satellite; he takes us on a real trip to “the other world.”

* * *

“What if...?” The question has to be asked, because Cyrano de Bergerac’s L’Autre Monde is one of the great missed opportunities of history.

What if... Cyrano had lived to publish his novel himself, as well as the full version of its sequel, Les Etats et empires du soleil? It’s not entirely implausible: a century later, many subversive works were printed in Holland, whence they were smuggled into France.

What if... he had at least been able to entrust his novel to someone other than Henry Le Bret, who was a devoted, life-long friend and who might have risked his own life if he had tried to preserve Cyrano’s literary memory intact?

What if... Cyrano’s complete novel had been widely read in the 17th and 18th centuries? It could have changed history quite significantly. Not because Cyrano’s ideas were fundamentally new and original: whose are? His science and philosophy had already been broached in one form or another by the ancients or by advanced contemporaries. Rather, Cyrano distills the most radical ideas of his time into a potent literary liqueur.

The history of ideas is a reference tool; the important thing is the historical context in which ideas are raised and propagated. For example: trips to the Moon or life on other worlds? The idea goes back to the ancient Greeks, to primordial legends, and recedes into the mists of prehistory. The reason is that life on other worlds is not an “idea” as such but an archetypal function of imagination itself: to paraphrase Voltaire’s Candide, “If such is life on this world, what must the others be like?”

Cyrano de Bergerac was a talented writer by the standards of the first half of the 17th century, but he is more important for his sheer intellectual courage. Do you bemoan political conformity and the obscurantists of today? What was life like under the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV? What on earth could people have been thinking when Copernicus’ heliocentric model was still more than a century away from general acceptance?

What if... we brought even Voltaire, who lived a century after Cyrano, into modern times? We’d have to explain everything to him. Cyrano de Bergerac would be delighted with Darwin’s discoveries and the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, not to mention the Apollo missions. Cyrano would quickly understand everything. This is one of the very rare cases in literature where we meet a true time traveler. Cyrano seems to come to the year 1650 from three centuries in his future.

What if... someone less subject to conflict than Henry Le Bret had been at the hinge of history? If such is life in this timeline, what must the others be like? The lengthy intellectual tug of war between tradition and reason known as the Querelle des anciens et des modernes — the Debate of the Ancients and Moderns — would have begun earlier than it did. It might even have been over before it started: Cyrano set a standard for audacity that puts him in good company with Voltaire.

He might have galvanized the Age of Enlightenment, and that wave of the future could have only risen even higher. With such a head start, we might have colonies spanning the Solar System.

And if humanity were better off, might it be better? Might today’s ideological and sectarian strife be seen for the medieval superstition it is? Cyrano finds in the course of his voyage to “the other world” that the latter question is far more difficult to answer than those of physics.

Who stands at the hinge of history today? Another Cyrano? Another Le Bret, forced to compromise? Or the sinister forces of reaction, which Cyrano opposed?

Copyright © 2003, 2010 by Donald Webb

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